You know how some married couples begin to look like each other over time, and how each spouse takes on some of the personality quirks of the other? Custom boats are like that, too. When you step aboard a custom yacht knowing a little about the owner's design brief, you can see how the personalities merge. Ruth Frances, a custom Little Harbor WhisperJet 52, shares her owners' personalities as if she were a human member of the family.
An afternoon aboard Ruth Frances this summer gave me enough time to fall in love. In addition to fulfilling every detail on the owners' design brief, this handsome and sensible package comes very close to being universally appealing.
I formed my first impression from astern, as Little Harbor's Michael Silverman and I walked toward her spot at the float. The word "huge" formed on my lips. "Sorry, Michael, but from this angle she looks half again her size." This impression was merely an optical illusion caused by the 52's low profile. She's three beams long overall (16-foot, 10-inch beam by 52 feet LOA), which is a common ratio, but her low-altitude superstructure makes her seem wider than normal. The illusion goes away as soon as you step into the cockpit-a back porch befitting a shoreside villa.
Slide open the door to the saloon, and the feeling of spaciousness continues, in part because the saloon is truly large and has so much glass area. The view out is wonderful, and so is the natural light that drenches the area.
This 52 is a sedan and has a helm only inside. I have lamented the absence of a flying bridge on other sedans I've driven, but not this time. I may be getting too old to drive from outside, but I think all the glass area and the ventilating options make a flying bridge unnecessary. Still, for sighting obstacles in the water or for docking, nothing beats the view from a flying bridge.
In this day of full-beam saloons, Little Harbor stops short and leaves comfortable side decks port and starboard. Only a Philistine will miss the interior volume sacrificed to the safety and convenience of real side decks. The dinette seats four adults at a high-low table, and a leaf deploys to service two more seated in chairs to port. These two rocking chairs are deliciously comfortable and encourage whiling away the hours of a dismal day reading and dozing. When you get up to stretch your legs, handrails on the overhead wait to steady your progress if the wake of a passing boat surprises you.
The owners' years of experience (with a variety of sailboats and motoryachts up to 100 feet LOA) shows in the arrangements plan. They wanted spacious accommodations for a couple to cruise alone and live aboard for weeks at a time, so the master stateroom occupies the forward third of the hull. The head is large and has a separate shower stall roomy enough for showering without bruising elbows. The more conventional layout has the master head on the port side and the guest head to starboard, neither with a separate shower. By increasing the size of the single head, the owners gave up some length in the guest quarters, but that's a fair compromise. This second stateroom houses only occasional guests, and only for short stays. During long delivery passages, it becomes crew's quarters.
Having a single head also gave Ruth Frances more hanging locker space than normal: three lockers in the master stateroom and one in the guest cabin. The owners took to heart the old saying, "a boat never has enough stowage." Every time I opened a drawer or cabinet door, I discovered a useful place to stash something. If I moved aboard the 52 and used her as a permanent residence, I wouldn't be able to fill all the stowage areas.
If you like to cook or cruise with someone who does, this galley will knock you out. Stowage, stowage, stowage-dry (huge bins forward of the sinks and abaft) and refrigerated (22-cubic-foot fridge)-places the galley at the top of my list. The arrangement gives the chef all the elbowroom needed to work comfortably, but everything is close at hand.
How many times have you struggled up or down a companionway "ladder" and wished for real steps? The four-step companionway to the saloon aboard Ruth Frances has deep treads (coated with nonslip) and a pitch closer to that of a household stairway than a typical ship's ladder. I can picture myself easily negotiating these stairs while balancing a tray of goodies for guests in the saloon.
The real joy is in the driving. At 52,000 pounds displacement, Ruth Frances simply ignored the bitty stuff Narragansett Bay served up. She tossed aside substantial motorboat wakes the way Jackie Chan dispenses with his cinematic enemies. Sheer heft is only one ingredient in the smooth-ride recipe. A stiff structure is another. The 52 is built of a knitted bi-directional E-glass/Kevlar hybrid vacuum-bagged over a Corecell A550 foam core, making her very stiff and resistant to puncture. Vinylester DPCD low-profile resin guards against osmotic blistering and reduces print-through.
All WhisperJets ride on a V-shape bottom. It has a fine entry that makes a transition to a straight run and ends in 17 degrees of deadrise at the transom. Generously wide chines suppress spray and add lift. The 52 runs at a shallow planing angle, which puts a lot of her sharper forward sections in the water at speed. This eliminates pounding at any speed Ruth Frances can reach (about 34 knots light-ship top speed) and in all but the nastiest seas. Throttle back to the high teens, and she'll cope with anything a prudent skipper is likely to encounter.
I've saved the best for last. I simply love the JetStick, especially for cruising with the autopilot disengaged. Engage the Power Steering mode, push the JetStick forward and open the throttles. You can sit back in the Stidd seat and with your fingertips twist the knob atop the JetStick lever to steer the boat. Want to stop in a hurry? Engage reverse on the stick, leaving the throttles as they were, and the boat comes to a screeching halt. In Helm mode, you steer with the wheel and use the JetStick to select forward or reverse, and at idle speed, operate the bow thruster. Docking mode lets you keep the engines at 550 rpm while you operate the buckets and bow thruster to move the boat forward, backward, sideways or in a pirouette. When you back into a slip, face the stern and operate the JetStick. Every move is intuitive. At all speeds, the 52 tracks as accurately as any prop-and-rudder boat.
Little Harbor builds the custom 52 and 55 in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and the company starts every new custom at the drawing board. As long as your requests don't compromise the structural integrity, you can have nearly anything you want.
Judging from the fine cherry joinery and superior finish on the hull, the 52 is a good value. A well-maintained example ought to return much of her original price after a few years of use, for anyone crazy enough to sell such a great boat.
Contact: Little Harbor Yachts, (401) 683-7005; fax (401) 683-7251; www.littleharboryachts.com.